You see the headline Barely Any UK teens Meeting Exercise and Screen-time Guidelines – and the first line, in which it’s apparently actually “less than 10% of them” – what are you led to visualise? UK teenagers are slobbing around being incredibly unhealthy. The UK is worse than everyone else. And we’re all going to hell in a handcart. It fuels the “young people are always on their phones” meme and discourages us from thinking that adults are perhaps just as “bad” or worse. And there are somehow valid guidelines relating to a healthy amount of screen-time.
It’s misleading and undermining.
Let’s look at the story
This is based on “The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth (ages 5-17 years)” described as “the first evidence-based guidelines to address the whole day. Kids are inactive and may be losing sleep over it. They aren’t moving enough to be tired, and they may also be too tired to move.”
I have no problem with this. I have no problem with guidelines for exercise and activity because there’s plenty of research to back it up and it makes sense. Also, there’s a clear difference between activity and inactivity (even though all activities are also different). So, it’s easy to see how these guidelines for activity could be valid and worth following (for adults, too).
Where I have a major problem is with “screen-time guidelines”. Screen-time guidelines based on time don’t make sense. There is no good research that underlines meaningful healthy or unhealthy amounts of screen-time. There’s one over-riding reason for this: “screen-time” means a vast range of different things with a wide range of relative value.
- TV and films
- Work and research
- Reading for pleasure or otherwise
- Communicating positively, healthily and productively
- Communicating negatively, unhealthily and pointlessly
- Entertainment and play
- Practising skills
- Using a camera, video, recording device
- Trolling and attacking people
- Lurking in conversations and getting upset
- Discovering new and wonderful things
- Discovering hideous things you wish you’d never seen
It can be intense and exhausting and focused, or relaxed and leisurely and shallow. It can make us feel great or terrible. It can be addictive or boring and easy to drop. It can involve long periods of sitting or short periods of sitting.
So how long might be healthy or unhealthy needs to accommodate what we are doing on our screens. And the research so far hasn’t and I don’t see how it could. The only vaguely reasonable attempt at guidelines comes from The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who largely seem to agree with what I say.
I have long argued that we need to stop asking how long we should be online and focus instead on making sure we (people of all ages) are doing plenty of the things we know are good for us and which are threatened by spending a lot of time online. Specifically:
- Exercise and outdoor time
- Face-to-face socialising and family/friend time, including meals
- Hobbies including reading for pleasure (including on a screen if you want to, as long as not internet-enabled)
- Daydreaming, mental drifting time
And this is where I do agree with the article in the Guardian: it is largely the use of our screens, in all their varieties, that is likely to stop us from getting enough of those things and particularly exercise and sleep. So, yes, we might use them too much – it’s just we can’t say what “too much” is, until it stops us ding healthy things, at which point it becomes too much. And that’s different for everyone.
So, yes, aim for good targets for exercise and sleep – at least an hour of moderate activity a day and strenuous activity every other day, and around 7 – 8 hours’ sleep for adults and 7.5 – 9 for teenagers – and don’t let your screen-time impact your face-to-face chat, hobbies and time to daydream, but forget the two-hour screen-time one. Yes, think about how you spend your screen-time – would something different sometimes be better? Are you getting benefit from it either in terms of fun or relaxation or learning or inspiration? Are you using most of the time well?
Create good practices that are built around quality not quantity.
You might like to use my pledge and adapt it to your family or school.
And, adults, look to yourselves before you criticise young people. If that two-hour target were valid, is there any reason why it would be more valid for young people than for you? No. We’re all the same in this: too much or too unhealthy time online and lack of sleep and exercise (etc) are bad for us all.
And if that headline made you think negatively about teenage behaviour, picture this one:
Barely Any UK Parents or Other Adults Meeting Exercise and Screen-time Guidelines
For all the detail about the positives and negatives of screen-time, see The Teenage Guide to Life Online, which should never have been called The Teenage Guide because it’s for everyone! You’ll also find a free Life Online Parent Pack here.